I recently read Lesslie Newbigin’s book The Open Secret and decided to write a few thoughts that the reading triggered in me as it relates to “mission.” If you’ve never heard of Newbigin, he was quite a fascinating guy. He was a scholar who wrote extensively on mission and the Church. You can hardly speak of missiology (the study of “missions“) without talking about Newbigin. But it’s important to note that Newbigin was a true boots-on-the-ground scholar. He was, himself, a missionary in India and, in fact, served there as a Bishop. He both “sat around the table with Karl Barth,” but also “sat on the floor of his local ashram with Hindu teachers, getting inside their worldview, not in order to work toward some fashionable relativistic synthesis, but to discern (much like Paul in Athens) points of contact and points of radical disagreement.”1
Many years ago I was in a bookstore in the greater Toronto area and asked the guy who ran the place if they had any of Newbigin’s books. “Newbigin?” he responded. He then turned away from me and called out to a young lady from India at the other end of the store whom I had never met. When she came over he said, “Phil here was asking about Newbigin. Tell him about Newbigin.” She said, “Oh, he baptized my father.” The book shop I was in contained both a library of Newbigin’s academic work, but also a person whose father was baptized by him in India. This seems an appropriate representation of Newbigin’s life and work. N.T. Wright says that “Lesslie taught a generation of us that a primary task of the Christian in any culture was engagement.”2 This was true of his whole life. Newbigin returned to Britain after many years serving in India but, as Wright says, he “had not come back to Britain to retire: he just translated his missionary vocation into a sequence of different modes.”3
My interest in Newbigin is two-fold. First, I’m interested in what he has to say to the church at this strange historical moment. Second, I’m interest in his understanding of the work of the gospel in pluralistic environments (like the one where I work). So, these next few posts will engage a few of his thoughts as they relate to our current situation and the gospel. Wright muses, “I have often reflected that, like some musical composers, Lesslie may in fact have his greatest impact generations after his death.”4 I imagine he is right, and there’s no time like the present to reflect upon his work.
Let’s start here: how do you measure the health of a church? This is one of the topics that Newbigin briefly engaged that seems timely. For many, if not most of us, the answer has to do with numbers. There are a lot of numbers we can track, but attendance is the one we can’t quite seem to get away from and happens to be the one we can most readily visualize. For people who grew up in highly evangelistic cultures, this has its roots in “decisionism.” If people weren’t making “decisions” for Christ, we pastors were failing. For Pentecostals (like me), this is a particularly hard metric to shake. Why? Because the Book of Acts is our go to for preaching and thinking (our Canon within the Canon). In the book of Acts we find rapid and dramatic growth. If you grew up in a Pentecostal church you were probably familiar with the following words (even if you didn’t know where the verse was located): “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). God did it then, so we should expect it now. “Healthy things grow,” I often heard good people say. They weren’t wrong, of course, it’s just that that’s not the whole truth. Numbers are tricky. Deceptive, even. Newbigin acknowledged and rejoiced in the growth seen in the book of Acts. It’s a beautiful part of the story of the church. At the same time, though, he insisted that we look to the Gospels and the Epistles to inform us more broadly. “In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus does not give the impression of being interested in large numbers” (125). Similarly, he writes that the Epistles don’t “seem to disclose any interest in numerical growth. We do not find Paul concerning himself with the size of the churches or with questions about their growth. His primary concern is with their faithfulness, with the integrity of their witness” (125). What about church history? Well, “we find, of course, periods of rapid numerical growth, of no growth, and of diminishing numbers” (126).
Sometimes we grow.
Sometimes we don’t.
Sometimes we shrink.
Right now, many of our churches in the West are shrinking. We’re living in a really strange time (I seem to be saying this a lot) and we’ve therefore witnessed this in quite a dramatic fashion. We really don’t know what the days ahead will reveal. While I do believe there is a reckoning happening, this doesn’t mean that the pastors of shrinking churches are all failing right now. We get this, right? The truth is, there are pastors who’ve been faithfully living, proclaiming and enacting the gospel whose churches are simultaneously shrinking in number, especially since 2020. If we’re honest with regards to the important issues going on outside of the scope pandemic (which seem to have been sped up by the pandemic), many pastors are having to answer for questions that existed long before they were pastoring (or perhaps even alive), are trying to do so honestly and humbly, and are simultaneously trying to deal with a world-wide disruption of habits. Dear pastor, you’re not failing. Your church may be shrinking, but you’re not failing. The numbers aren’t the metric.
Beyond the recognition that shrinking doesn’t always equate unfaithfulness, we also need to say that growth doesn’t necessarily equal “success.” This is probably the harder pill to swallow, because almost all of us have become addicted to the thrill of growth and accepted its metric on some level. The truth, though, is that growth can be deeply, deeply problematic.5 Newbigin points to how quickly the church grew in the Constantinian era as well as during the Spanish conquest. “But this nowhere appears as…an enthusiasm about the numerical growth of the church” (126). We’re now embarrassed of that growth, as we should be, and are still paying the price for it. There’s a way to look at the current moment and say, “we’re losing,” while simultaneously looking back at the times when our churches were exploding and say, “we were winning.” It’s hard to deny that if numbers are our key metric for health or success. The truth, of course, is more complicated than that. In some cases it might even be the inverse of that. So while we can rightly rejoice and give God thanks if our churches grow in healthy ways, and even pray for this, we really need to shed it as our metric for “success.” It’s a terrible weight to put on clergy. Beyond that, it’s also revealing of what may lie deeper underneath.
Newbigin, here, gives us an important question that I feel we need to be confronted with:
“we have to ask whether the church is most faithful in its witness to the crucified and risen Jesus and most recognizable as the community that ‘bears about in the body the dying Jesus’ when it is chiefly concerned with its own self-aggrandizement” (127).
Interestingly, at a moment of ecclesial frustration like the one we are in currently, we have the potential to be more true to our cruciform (cross-shaped) vocation. The moment doesn’t guarantee it, of course, but the potential is there. Now for the record, none of this means that I want things to stay the way they are. I don’t. I grieve so much of what has been lost in the past number of years. What it does mean, though, is that we need to be really careful of how we rebuild from here. Newbigin writes, “When numerical growth is taken as the criterion of judgment on the church, we are transported with alarming ease into the world of the military campaign or the commercial sales drive” (127). I think there’s a way that we’re paying the price (in different ways) for both of those things currently. We need to move forward, but we need to do so carefully. Now is a moment for asking better questions about how to move forward from here in ways that are faithful to the way of the gospel we’re sent to proclaim.
All of this to say, evangelism and missionary work are an important and fundamental part of what it means to be a Christian at all times, and certainly deeply necessary in our time as we seek to rebuild in a moment of crisis and in an increasingly secular culture. But while we know doing this work is important, the how of this work is absolutely vital to our faithful witness of Jesus and his Kingdom. Prayerfully thinking through this is a part of the churches work in every generation, but it feels utterly urgent right now. So I guess this is an introduction of sorts to the next few posts on mission where we’ll attempt to think well about our beliefs and practices. When we give fresh attention to things like this, we need faithful voices to help us to do so. Newbigin, I believe, is a great guide. I want to spend the next few posts talking about some of the crucial yet often overlooked aspects of mission that Newbigin brings up which I believe we should pay attention to as we rebuild. But first, though not unrelated, I want to briefly tackle something that I think we need to talk very carefully about: innovation. But that’s for the next post.
We seem to be waking up to this as can be demonstrated by the popularity of the podcast “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.”
All other quotes taken from Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1978)